When modernising a 1970s film starring James Caan about an intelligent professor whose melancholy outlook leads him into a merry-go-round of gambling addiction and self-destruction, you might not expect Mark Wahlberg to be your go-to leading man. But it’s exactly what the director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt has done in The Gambler.
Set in the modern day, English Professor Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) only ever seems at his least angry when he’s risking everything he has in one of LA’s Chinatown gambling dens. In a lot of debt to a criminal, he gets himself staked by another, Neville (Michael K. Williams) before losing that and enlists backing from a third called Frank (John Goodman). Being the son of one of the wealthiest men in America and with a constant stream of opportunities to pay his debtors back, but continues to gamble until all three men want him dead.
Wyatt’s direction is assured and slick with moments like the stop-motion gambling and some interesting dream/memory sequences and his supporting cast including brilliant turns by Goodman, Williams, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson. But here’s the problem that stops The Gambler from ever really connecting. The lead character.
Wahlberg is a better actor than people tend to credit him for, and he gives a good effort as an intelligent professor Hell-bent on a suicide by the most over-the-top means. But with his patented anger and confusion-driven acting style he is horribly miscast. You just don’t believe he is the character. But not all the blame should be apportioned to Wahlberg, as the script gives the character plenty of opportunities to get out of the predicament, but he just keeps refusing. This would be fine if he was a gambling addict, unable to stop himself, but he gives the impression throughout that he doesn’t really enjoy betting and certainly gets no thrill from it even when he’s winning. So the big question is, why does he do it?
There are themes thrown at you that hint at potential want of death, or a lack of substance in his life or even a need to be the best in any given field. But nothing really holds together and his lack of fear, desperation or desire means that it’s almost impossible to care. If he doesn’t why should we?
You have to consider whether Wahlberg was the first choice for the role, or whether the thinking was from a commercial point of view that his name would sell the film better at cinemas. Regardless for a film based around a central character like this The Gambler doesn’t hold together.